Saturday was not Jurgen Klopp’s heaviest defeat against Manchester City. Liverpool lost 5-0 there in 2017, 4-0 in 2020, and 4-1 at Anfield in 2021. But it was the worst defeat by far. This time there were no excuses – no early red cards, no injury crisis, no title party hangover to blame. This time the scoreboard told the true story: a mediocre team had been hammered by a much better one.
Liverpool’s on-field problems are manifold – losing Sadio Mané, who was simultaneously one of their best attackers and one of their best defenders, midfielders too old to do what they used to do, Virgil van Dijk no longer being superhuman – but in the opinion of many, these problems share a common cause. A consensus has formed among Liverpool fans that the rot can be traced back to the owners Fenway Sports Group (FSG), who through a combination of miserliness and misjudgement have starved the team of the resources they need to compete. All the anger and confusion felt by Liverpool fans at the collapse of their once-great side has condensed into the slogan: FSG Out!
From the perspective of most football clubs, FSG might look like pretty good owners. They recruited Jürgen Klopp and enabled him to build the best team to play for Liverpool. They paid for this team using money generated by the club, while competing with rivals who stand accused of systematically breaking Premier League spending rules. They have won a full set of trophies, increased Anfield’s capacity by a third, and – this really did seem unthinkable just a few years ago – surpassed Manchester United in terms of annual revenue. They don’t pay themselves dividends, they haven’t loaded the club with debt, they’re not an obvious money-laundering front or an instrument of somebody’s foreign policy. This is about as about as good as it gets.
The problem with FSG’s achievements is that they happened in the past, and eaten bread is soon forgotten. History books tell of a time before FSG when Liverpool, astonishing as it may seem, were in far worse shape than they are now – the time when Roy Hodgson was the manager, or the time when Tom Hicks and George Gillett ran the club into the ground, or the time when David Moores appointed joint managers because he didn’t have the heart to sack Roy Evans. There is only one relevant question: what have you done for me lately, FSG?
Such near-universal amnesia makes it hard to entertain the once-familiar idea that teams naturally rise and fall, they pass through phases of growth and decay, that this is normal and should not necessarily be read as a signal to burn it all down.
If Liverpool are suddenly failing, it’s not because of a lack of resources. According to 2022 accounts, only Manchester United among Premier League rivals spend more on wages (although this will probably change in 2023, when Erling Haaland’s €1 million a week deal factors in at Manchester City). It’s because of bad decisions. They don’t have a “we don’t have enough money to compete” problem. They have a “we spent our money on the wrong players” problem.
Most of the money in question is being spent on players already at the club. Liverpool’s wage bill is 75 per cent higher than Arsenal’s. It’s an eternal football dilemma: what do you do with experienced champions who have won everything when their contracts are winding down? Either you let them go, like Mané and Gini Wijnaldum: everyone pines for them and says it was a mistake to let them go. Or you give them huge contracts, like Jordan Henderson and Fabinho: everyone says their legs have gone and it was a mistake to renew them.
Lately there have also been big recruitment mistakes. Look at Darwin Nuñez, the £80 million centre-forward who can shoot and head and run like the wind but can’t pass and can’t play centre-forward. Darwin evidently has the potential to score goals in the Premier League – but does he have the potential to succeed at a big club like Liverpool, who will dominate the ball in most of their games and will have to break down defensive opponents with combination play? With his mix of awesome physical prowess and technical inconsistency, he looks a good player for a bad team but a bad player for a good team. What kind of team do Liverpool want to be?
Liverpool could never have afforded Haaland on a million euro a week – but they could have afforded Julian Alvarez, who joined City for a reported £14.1 million last January. Alvarez is the kind who can be a good player for a good team. On Saturday he scored City’s first and created their second with a perceptive pass to Mahrez, while Darwin watched from the bench. (Afterwards Guardiola thanked the City hierarchy for “scouting” Alvarez and they surely deserve credit for unearthing this obscure gem: after all, he had done little before City bought him besides winning the league, the cup and the continental championship with river Plate, winning the Copa America with Argentina and being named South American Footballer of the Year.)
It now seems that the only way FSG can win back the confidence of some Liverpool fans is by signing Europe’s most vaunted young midfielder, Jude Bellingham, for a club-record fee. But the most expensive player on the market is not necessarily the best or the right one to buy. Think back to the summer of 2016, when Manchester United bought the Bellingham of his day, Paul Pogba, from Juventus for £90 million. Klopp made a pious little speech saying, in essence – if this is the way football is going, I want no part of it – and bought Gini Wijnaldum from Newcastle for a quarter of the fee. That same window City bought Ilkay Gündogan for £20 million, Chelsea bought N’Golo Kanté for £32 million, and Arsenal bought Granit Xhaka for £33 million. All of these clubs got a better deal than United did.
Regain their lost knack of good decisions and there is nothing to stop an FSG-owned Liverpool building another competitive team. “FSG Out” is less a rational argument than an abdication of the will, a cry of surrender, an acquiescence to the idea that There Is No Alternative to the sovereign wealth funds. With Arsenal showing everyone that it is still possible for self-funded clubs to compete with the likes of City, now is surely not the time for Liverpool to quit on their stool.